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Brittany Murphy Lives On in Her Work

The tragic, far-too-young death of the talented Brittany Murphy, who proved as capable in drama as in comedy, cut short the arc of a performer whose humor and humanity came out whether playing the spunky tag-along girl in Clueless (1995); the sexually abused Daisy, who pathologically cuts herself, in Girl, Interrupted (1999); or the wide-eyed, well-meaning hottie, Luann Platter, that she voiced for years on TV's King of the Hill, earning an Annie nomination in the process.

The 32-year-old actress and sometime singer let her good nature and all-around adorableness shine through — nowhere more apparent than in USO shows in which she performed for American troops overseas.

At 8 a.m. local time on Sunday, December 20, 2009, the Los Angeles Fire Department responded to a 911 call from the home of Murphy and her husband, British screenwriter Simon Monjack. She had apparently collapsed in a bathroom, and despite the efforts of emergency crews, was pronounced dead on arrival at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center at 10:04 a.m., following cardiac arrest. As of the evening of Monday, December 21, 2009, the cause of death remains unknown. 

She is scheduled to appear in a film completed before her death: the psychological thriller Abandoned , opposite Dean Cain, Mimi Rogers, Peter Bogdanovich and Tim Thomerson.

In the meantime, in what might be a macabre coincidence, she spoke with Brad Balfour for a 2006 drama directed by Karen Moncreif in which, with a cast that included such luminaries as Toni Collette, Piper Laurie, Giovanni Ribisi, Rose Byrne, James Franco, Mary Steenburgen and Bruce Davison, she played the title role: The Dead Girl.

With respect and sympathy to her family, friends and fans, FFTrav offer a rare, little-seen Q & A (from a roundtable transcript) with the much-beloved actress — who, as her upbeat and carefree words then show, was a woman, not interrupted, who lived her life with energy and joy.  --Frank Lovece

Q: Were you attached to this role from the beginning?

BM: I was the second person attached to the film, second or third, after Giovanni [Ribisi].

Q: What attracted you to it?

BM: Karen asked me to be a part of it and I was a huge fan of hers from Blue Car. I loved the honesty and truth and rawness of that film. Then I was really intrigued that she was doing another picture. I read it, [and] thought I was reading a psychological thriller. It’s called The Dead Girl, and it started reading like a psychological thriller from the first act. After getting past The Stranger and then moving on to The Sister… you know, they say the journey is the destination.

As clichéd as that is, it really was true with this because all I did was, while I was trying to figure out who did this – which character was it? – I started to just not care [who actually did it]. I started to get completely engrossed in the lives [of the characters], and in being a voyeur of the lives of these really richly written characters with so many layers and so much depth, and how highly unusual that is to see so many of them in one script.

I adored the script. So I met with Karen, then heard her vision and what she was going to do with it, and then signed on to be a part of it.

Q: How did she pitch the part to you? It all builds up to Krista, so what did she say to you about what she wanted the character to be like and what ideas didi you bring to it?

BM: I wish I could be more specific about it because neither one of us can really remember because it all happened so quickly. I have said this before, and I’m sorry to be redundant.

I am very visceral when it comes to choosing material, or characters choosing me, or me choosing them. My job is strange. My job is to believe I’m someone else more hours of the day than I am myself. That’s a really weird job, OK?

So one wants to make sure that while one is doing is doing that, first of all, I like to make sure I’m a part of a story that I think is imperative that it’s told or (is) extraordinarily entertaining. The older I get the more particular I’ve become about that. Then, who’s telling the story? Through what eyes? a/k/a/ Karen’s.

Then, okay, who is this person that I am going to be? And does that make sense for me? Immediately, when it comes to characters, once the story is something that I’d love to be a part of, it’s a very visceral feeling and I always just kind of connect and know. When Karen also told me that she thought of me because of the information she received in some work that I’d done prior in different other films, and her being a juror and how she came about this project, I also then sort of felt it was a responsibility to Krista’s life, because she was a real person.

Q: The character here, Krista, shares a lot in common with your Girl, Interrupted character and even your 8 Mile character -- they express a gritty, outward appearance but want to do better for themselves. Did you find yourself drawing on your previous roles in portraying Krista and what kind of research did you do?

BM: what I explained to you is the research that I did. And anything else… I spoke with some recovered addicts. I spoke with a counselor or two, but I like to keep my resources private, to respect their privacy. And people really helped explain things to me.

I also saw some footage, and that helped. But really the breakdown of the chemical composition was the biggest help. As far as everything in life – sorry to be so broad – but it really does cover everything. For me, everything in life is a learning experience. Everything. This is. Whether we choose to make it one or not, anything can be, I believe.

Q: There was an inevitability of her death. Did that help inform your performance?

M: You know, interestingly enough, no. There was no foreboding feeling because she didn’t have a foreboding feeling, I don’t think, of her death. [That’s] not how I saw it or felt it. I didn’t feel that she had a foreboding feeling of her death.

But I will say, if you saw Girl, Interrupted, that was one experience where a character killed herself. Daisy killed herself, but how we shot that film was Daisy’s death completely backwards to the first scenes in the film. So I actually did shoot, in Girl, Interrupted, just Daisy, and they blocked me in a certain period of time and shot me out in three weeks. They shot her completely from her death to the beginning of the story, and that helped me a lot in understanding who she was.

So I have had that experience before, and I didn’t feel that here, because Krista loved life so much. She was very much about, they say, "Live in the moment," she was about the second or maybe the millisecond.

Q: Do you worry about doing too good a job that results in glamorizing this lifestyle?

No, I would hope the very, very opposite. If I’m ever a part of something like this it would be to… I mean, this film particularly… to help be a very small part of [imparting] a very large, large message, much larger than any of us involved, which is that violence is wrong and atrocious. So many people’s lives in this film, every character’s life, was changed by this violent act that occurred, and why can’t we just notice things instead?

Why do we have to have something that tragic happen to kick us in the rear to be able to actually life-altering decisions for the best, to better ourselves? I don’t understand that. And I wish more people would. I think we all could start trying. And I think this is a great message as far as stopping violence or at least helping to garner awareness towards stopping violence.

Q: Was there a line or something else that helped you figure out who Krista was?

BM: It was very evident to me. I don’t know how else to… I did ask Karen a lot of questions. "How would you like her to sound?" "Exactly what kind of drugs is she on and how much of them?"

"OK, she’s bi-polar," Karen told me. "She’s self-medicating."

Well, I figured she’s self-medicating, so I spoke with some counselors and had them break down exactly the types of drugs Karen told me Krista was on and break down what the chemical reaction with any human being’s body would be. And these reactions are absolutely atrocious, and that’s why she behaves so mercurially; just what it depletes one’s body of is so sad and tragic.

Also she was a chain smoker, and I asked [Karen] how she envisioned her always sounding and she said, "Kind of gravelly."  I said, "Kind of like this?" I did her voice and she said, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, exactly like that." So I said, "Okay, I’ll keep that." Karen and I had a really easy shorthand.

Q: What was Krista on?

BM: Crack.

Q: How was Karen different from other directors you’ve worked with?

BM: Quite obviously, seeing the film, she is a chameleon when it comes to actors. There’s such a broad cast, and how she changed her… It wasn’t the Karen way. Karen molded to each person she worked with as opposed to the people molding to Karen’s way, which was really fantastic.

Yet, she still stood very strong in herself, very grounded and still had so much respect, the utmost respect from everyone and the entire crew, and ran the show, yet still, again, adapted to all of these different styles of acting, people, egos, you name it. I think that that’s miraculous. She never lost her cool.

This was one of the happiest sets I have ever stepped foot on in my life, and it definitely was not light fare. People were there because they wanted to be, from our costume designer to hair and makeup to the actors to our whole entire crew, [and] I mean grip, cinematographer; everyone there had an opportunity to be the artist that they are.

Karen allowed everyone to be creatively rewarded and allowed us – us meaning myself and the crew and the other actors – to be able to express our own art. She did not ever try to stifle that, and that’s a great feeling. People need that… artists need that to replenish the soul. So everyone felt very free there, and that allotted for a very happy place because no one felt stifled.

Q: Your fellow actress Kerry Washington said you taught her how to smoke.

BM: That is true

Q: So, is she a good smoker?

BM: I don’t know. You saw the film. What’d you think? I hope I did okay. She was practicing and showing me. We met for dinner. Because of the short preparation time, how Karen wanted Kerry and I to rehearse was to just familiarize ourselves with each other.

We went for dinner. And I had to be chain smoking for the role. As you could see, I had to learn to do that. And she taught me how to curse, so… I’m kidding [giggles loudly]!!!!

Q: Going forward, are you looking to keep mixing it up, doing indies like this and bigger films that may have a worthwhile message?

BM: For me it’s extraordinarily important to be a part of films that have messages that, as an artist, I can help communicate, and messages that I find important because that is what I do. So if I’m going to try to be a part of getting any sort of point across I think I should stick to my job and do it that way.

The next film I’m working on is The White Hotel, and I’m excited. That is a film that has a very large message behind it and hopefully it will make people extraordinarily aware of how wrong genocide is.

Carey Mulligan Gets "An Education"

With An Education, the 24-year-old British actress Carey Mulligan has come out of nowhere to garner the kind of ciritical acclaim and award notice that few receive so quickly — she's up for a 2009 Golden Globe, for example. But her performance as 16-year-old Jenny in Danish director Lone Scherfig's version of Lynne Barber's story (adapted by screenwriter Nick Hornby), not only glistened but showed an understanding of her character and the era beyond her years.

Carey Mulligan and Alfred MolinaStifled by the social conventions of 1961 England, Jenny's life changes when she meets a handsome older man David (Peter Sarsgaard) who both opens her eyes to world at large and the sexual life within her. Though he tenderly draws her in, he has an insidious, deceptive side that eventually reveals itself, destroying her and her father's (Alfred Molina) hopes for a life with him.

The London-born Mulligan had been in a few films such as 2005's Pride and Prejudice (playing Kitty Bennet alongside Keira Knightley, Judi Dench, and Donald Sutherland) and in the 2005 BBC adaptation of Charles Dickens' Bleak House (as the orphan Ada Clare). but the Covent Garden resident first established herself in the latest version of TV's Doctor Who as a guest actress.

Carey has said her passion for acting was kindled at Woldingham School, where she performed in Sweet Charity in her final year. In a relationship with Shia LaBeouf as of last August, meeting him when they began filming Oliver Stone's sequel to Wall Street (1987), Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, she spoke with us at a press day in Manhattan.

Q: Did you identify with your character?

CM: I think mainly in the way she feels about school. I got quite bored with school towards the end. When I was 14, I was really academic, and then I slowly lost interest in it towards the more important parts. It was just that I felt like I was doing things to tick boxes and to get on another level, and to just pass that exam so that I could get onto that exam, and I just thought, “This isn’t interesting and I’m not learning anything that I’m interested in.”

I just felt like I was doing it for other people, and I was doing it to please other people. But then I didn’t take advantage of my education, and that’s quite sad. I admire Jenny, in that she really does want to learn and feel passionately about things. [I attended] a really nice school in Surrey, and we went on really amazing school trips to really amazing places, even just museums in London or concerts and things. But it was just an opportunity for us to run out and find a Pizza Hut that serves alcohol, like where can we get drunk in 45 minutes before we have to be at this thing. So I related to her in the fact that she wanted to escape all of that, because I thought it must be better somewhere else.

Q: You and the other actors have a lot of theater experience. With this movie that would contribute to making some of the set pieces in the house and some of the other interactions work because you’re really familiar with that kind of interplay of dialogue, that talk back and forth. Did the film have a theatrical, on the stage quality to you?

CM: When you do a play you come away from it feeling like you’ve really acted for a bit. But it pretty much would have come out of lots of people who are brilliant and have done a lot of film. It’s the cast [that matters] —  when you get a group of people together who genuinely like each other a lot, and make each other feel comfortable. Those sort of things work when everyone feels at ease with each other, and so you don’t feel nervous about making mistakes or are embarrassed.

Because I was probably the least experienced person, [that was] certainly the case for me. I never felt embarrassed, and that was because I was around a lot of people who don’t worry about perceptions of themselves like that. So it had more to do with that; I’ve not done that much theater [actually]. We didn’t have a huge amount of time [for rehearsal]; we had 6½ weeks and then two days in Paris.

Q: Did you enjoy having a chance to live through the experience of the ‘60s — especially with the clothes, and hair?

CM: It was great; I loved all that. It’s always helpful to put on the shoes of the character you’re playing, and it certainly helps wearing a school uniform. And then being surrounded by girls who really were 16 or 17 years old; all the extras that age were really helpful. When you wear no makeup, or film no makeup — which is lots of makeup to make it look like you’re not wearing anything — and a school uniform, and then someone puts on a nice dress and does your makeup, you do feel like you’ve been done up and transformed. 

You walk around and don’t feel so horrible in front of the crew; all those things make you feel generally better about yourself. It was great and it was fun, with girls false eyelashes are always fun.

Q: Was the '60s music a revelation?

CM: Lone [Scherfig, the director] made me lots of CDs before we started shooting. Also they’d written this sort of soundtrack, or the piano piece that goes over the whole film, and I had a minute of that, it was put on one of the CDs. And then it was on my iTunes and I didn’t know what it was, and six months later I was going through it and played it.

I had no memory of where it had come from, so I labeled it because I was going through a labeling phase. I labeled it as “Pretty Song." It wasn’t until I Dominic Cooper and Peter Sarsgaardwent to Sundance and heard the song that I realized it was from this. I love the music in the film; the Duffy track at the end is cracking.

Q: What was Lone's direction like?

CM: she doesn’t see the task of making a film as stressful. I’m sure she has enormous stress, but you never feel that stress from her, and she sees it as a really joyful thing that we’ve all be given this gift of a script. So it does feel very measured really.

Q: Do you think that 16-year-old girls nowadays could fall in love as easily as a girl in the ‘60s?

CM: Yeah, definitely. Probably the only difference is that I wouldn’t advocate getting in the car in 2009. Don’t get in the car. But then, my dad would tell me that when he played on the streets
he'd played football in Liverpool when he was growing up — if you got thirsty you just knocked on the door and asked someone for a glass of water.

You just wouldn’t do that now. So I think the only difference is she wouldn’t have got in the car. God, girls at my school would just go crazy, and instantly, and I don’t even think Jenny ever falls in love with him; I think she loves him and finds him endearing and he introduces her to a different world, but I don’t think she’s in love. I don’t think the sex would be so calculated. But I think she does love him.

Q: Is she more in love with her projection of herself in that world?

CM: Absolutely. She’s becoming who she thinks she wants to be, and then realizes of course she’s not. There’s one good thing that someone said the other day, there are a few shots in the film where the lighting changes, or moments when she’s realizing stuff about herself that she doesn’t particularly like, and every time there’s a shot like that, in the car when she reads and she finds out that he’s married, and there’s another moment as well, the makeup suddenly doesn’t sit on her face anymore; it looks like she’s put on her mum’s shoes and done her makeup.

The lips look wrong and the eyes look wrong, and I like that. I think the lighting suddenly becomes harsh and you see a really young face with too much makeup on it, and you suddenly see her, and those are the moments when she realizes that she’s just gone way too far.

Q: It wasn't a problem for a girl that young to get involved with a guy that old? Not a problem conceptually, but did it seem realistic?

CM: Oh absolutely; definitely.

Q: You get a chance to live 16 again, so were there things you've thought about or learned or reflected on so that you say, "At least I didn’t do that," or "Oh yeah, I didn’t think about that?"

CM: She’s more rebellious than I was; I wasn’t that interesting. And I wasn’t that bold either; I would never have got in the car, and not even in the ‘60s, I would have just walked away and waited for the bus. I think I wish I’d taken more advantage of the stuff I got to at school. I think I wasted quite a lot of time. I had fun, but I didn’t do very much.

We went on a choir trip once to Washington and we spent the whole time being like, “Oh it’s so hot.” Like, come on; we had amazing opportunities and threw them away, and I feel a bit guilty about that.

Every time I do a job I’m always amazed by how knowledgeable people are, and on Wall Street, the amount that Oliver [Stone, the director] and Shia
[LeBouf] and Frank [Langella] and Michael [Douglas] have all learned about, they already knew so much, but the amount they know about finance and the economy, and I kind of come in a go, “God, give me a copy of The Economist, I need to figure out what the hell you’re all talking about.” So I think I’m trying to learn more for myself than I was before. I was kind of coasting along before, quite happily ignorant.

Q: Have you ever tried singing?

CM: I sang a lot at school but I’ve never done it professionally.

Q: Who are your role models as actresses?

CM: I think people who’ve had interesting, varied, gone back and done plays and lots of different things. Like Samantha Morton, Emma Thompson obviously, Kate Winslet, Toni Collette, Claudie Blakley, but lots of American actresses as well. Penelope Cruz; I met her in Toronto and almost cried.

Q: [Actor] Dominic Cooper [of An Education] said you went to lots of readings and auditions together but never got the role. What do you remember from that time?

CM: I love how he’s telling that story. The reason Dominic and I know each other is that, when [the production company] Working Title has a new film they have a big roundtable read and they just ring up actors to come play the parts, not necessarily the people who will play the parts, and in our case, definitely not.

So we’ve been in, a fair few times where we’ve been called in to play very small parts in big films, and we sit around and we get really horribly nervous because we’ve got like three lines and then we just make a complete mess of it and then they never call us.

Then you find out when you watch the film that everybody else around the table ended up playing those parts, apart from me and Dominic. So that’s how Dominic and I met basically, by being rejected together.

Q: Dominic made it sound much more glamorous when he was telling it.

CM: He does.

Q: After all that rejection how do you feel about everybody saying this movie is a big vehicle for you?

CM: I’m amazed by the reviews. I’m not amazed [in that] I think it’s a lovely film, but I think it’s been wonderful to be part of something that people seem to genuinely like. But it hasn’t come out yet, so. It hasn’t been years and years of rejection; I’ve a had a really lucky, nice career so far, Dominic’s just made it sound like we lived in hovels and occasionally sang songs for people.

Q: Well he did.

CM: He did; yeah that’s true. But I can’t say enough about what this has all meant to me. But really the best thing that’s come out of this has been spending time with the people we made it with.

Nick just gave me this, and when we were about to do a Q&A and showed me the dedication at the beginning and I just burst into tears. I’ve got so much love for all the people that we did this with, and the fact that I get to spend all this time around them again is just great. But if these nice things mean that more people will see the film, that’s nice, because it won’t just be your aunt and my Welsh granny.

Q: How are things on Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps?

CM: Good, they’re good, yeah.

Q: How did you land the role in Wall Street 2? How is it working for the first time here?

CM: This is not the first time I worked here; I did a film here last summer, The Greatest — which was also at Sundance — and then I did the play here. But someone slipped Oliver a copy of An Education and my agent rang me when I was still shooting Never Let Me Go and said, “Oliver Stone’s going to give you a call.” 

What a strange phone call to have. I was sitting with Andrew Garfield, who was in Never Let Me Go with me, and he just went mental. I went and got a hands-free [phone] so we could both lean over the table and listen, because we just wanted to hear Oliver Stone speaking, which I’ve never told Oliver and now he’ll know.

Then he offered me the job and I went over to LA a couple of weeks later and read it and loved it. I had versions of the script since July and we started rehearsal; we had about three weeks of rehearsals about two months ago, and then we’ve done about four weeks of shooting. I haven’t had to do very much yet, they’ve been kind to me and [scheduled] all of my big stuff for after I’ve released this. But it’s great; it’s an amazing cast.

Q: You’ve seen the original movie?

CM: Yeah. It was weird actually because the day before I was going to meet Oliver to read it, and I still didn’t know if it was something that I, I didn’t know what to do really, I didn’t know what the part would be like and I didn’t know if I should just dive in regardless of the part because it’s Oliver.

I was staying at this hotel and I was doing this thing with The New York Times and I went to rent a DVD the night before I left, and I opened the dvd player to put in the one I’d got
I got Risky Business and Wall Street was in there. And then when I was flying to LA I was reading this magazine and my horoscope said, “blah blah blah blah blah, rubbish rubbish rubbish, like Gordon Gekko said in Wall Street, "Greed is good.” And I thought, “Why is the universe telling me to do this film?”

Q: Who do you play in the movie?

CM: I play Gordon Gekko’s daughter.

Q: Working with Oliver Stone, and all the good reviews and award notices for this movie, it is a big break in a sense of global domination. How you feel about that, because everyone wants a piece of you; there’s also the bad side of fame and the paparazzi and of course once everyone recognizes you on the street...

CM: I mean, I’ve been recognized twice [laughs].

Q: That could change.

CM: Well, I don’t really look like I do in this film. My years so far, and my life so far, and even to do with Wall Street, and there are paparazzi and it is distracting because you’re trying to film a scene on the street and you’re trying to think about your character or the other person you’re acting with, and you have 20 people taking other images of you.

When you think there should be just one image of you there are all these images of you, and so you have to try and not think about any of that, so it’s distracting for your work. But ultimately, you can get upset about it, but it’s not a bad position to be in. I’m doing the job that I love with people that I really respect, so it’s like a 98 percent good situation with a 2 percent downside. I’m so absurdly lucky to be working, let alone working with the people I’m working with. I don’t even know if it will enter my world, but if it does it’s not bad in the grand scheme of things.

Q: Are you irritated that when you’re out with Shia that everybody’s is clicking cameras and, everybody surrounds you? He’s probably stalked by people.

CM: At work there are always paparazzi there, but there are always paparazzi on the set of Sex and the City and everything else that shoots in New York or any major city, so it comes with the territory.

it’s irritating at work really because you don’t want to think about it, but then they’re doing their job and ’re earning their living for their families. You just have to block it out.


For more by Brad Balfour:

Director Neill Blomkamp's "District 9" Now on DVD

Who would have thought that this quirky, controversial, though sometimes uneven film, District 9, could have knocked a tentpole picture like Paramount's G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra off the top of the charts after its first week. But besides being a classic science-fiction tale in the best sense of the term, it has two other charmed words behind it — Peter Jackson -- and as a result, it not only had huge success in theaters but it will most likely have successful sales now that the film is coming to DVD and Blu-Ray on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2009.

After complaining that there's a paucity of fresh ideas coming out of Hollywood, the Oscar-winning Lord of The Rings-leader put his imprimatur on District 9 as a producer. Nonetheless, this feature is thoroughly the creation of 29-year-old South Africa-born writer-director Neill Blomkamp, based on his 2005 short.

Twenty-eight years before the "now" of this near-future thriller, crustacean-like humanoids inhabit a vast galaxy-spanning spaceship that appears in Earth's atmosphere. Not there to make formal first contact, the "prawns" (as they become labeled) arrive here because of some unexplained (at least to humans) mishap that forces their ship to hover motionless above Johannesburg. After some debate, humans helicopter up to the ship and cut their way in to find thousands of aliens starving and stinking up their vessel.

Relocated to Earth, they are crowded into a small neighborhood called District 9 where, over the ensuing 20 years, it becomes a shunned slum (a clear reference to District 6, the Johannesburg slum created by the once-ruling Afrikaans as a ghetto for its Black population).

The obvious metaphor is there, made even more so, when the South African government of this near-future's present decides to re-locate the one million-plus "prawn" population to a decidedly smaller, more isolated camp — in tandem with MNU, a corporation running the alien ghetto while secretly trying to tap them for their technology and biology. Though humans and aliens can somehow communicate — humans can sort of decipher their gutteral clicks and snaps (it sounds a bit like the real Xhosa language) — there's a huge misapprehension and resistance by the aliens to their forced move.

Applying a range of extrapolative techniques to explain this alien society with its heirarchy of common citizens and elite technologists, the film shows how they survive, and hope to cope with a post-20th century South Africa. Blomkamp does a good job in delineating this complex alien culture as one of its scientists plots to get them off Earth. Thrown into the mix is the Nigerian criminal gang that exploits the perimeter of this ghetto and its denizens — much like it happens in South Africa today.

While the film challenges expectation and grapples with first contact, it humorously exposes human foibles in an oddly skewed mirror-like fashion. It also offers a cool spaceship, funky aliens and great weapons. Loaded with homages to tons of sci-fi movies and ideas, the film breezily makes its mark on this genre.

Q: Why did you chose this direction for your first feature film rather than make a more obvious, socio-political film about the same issues?

NB: I grew up in Johannesburg. The genesis for the idea came out of the fact that I just love science fiction and Johannesburg, so I wanted to see science fiction mixed with Johannesburg. It didn't come about like, "I want to talk about these issues that had an effect on me when I was growing up, like segregation and apartheid and everything else."

The second you put something in Johannesburg, you start raising these issues. Before [I thought of] District 9, I felt like half of my mind wanted to make some serious film about these topics and the other half wanted to make a bloody genre film. And then I thought maybe I'll be able to do both. So there's never been a second in my mind where it might have been set somewhere else, because Joburg came first.

Q: You focused on one character throughout the film — an MNU field operative, Wikus van der Merwe (
Sharlto Copley). Why did you identify with him; is some part of him, you, or someone you know or were taking the piss out of?

NB: I was definitely taking a piss [British slang for making fun of someone]. Afrikaaners don't occur that often in movies, but when they do, they're usually tough militaristic guys. They are the guys that created the apartheid and stuff. So there's an image of what the Afrikaans male is. The reality in Johannesburg is that lots of those kind of guys work for massive state-owned companies, and are much more bureaucratic, pencil-pushing dudes.

I loved the idea of having a guy who is comfortable in his life and with what his company was doing, who always says "yes" to whatever the company asks for, and genuinely believes it is in the best interest of everyone to do what the company wants. It was awesome to take someone like that, who is comfortable in their position, and have them turn into the thing they are oppressing. It's mostly a satirical take on that kind of character, which is what I like about District 9.

Q: Do you find it amazing how alien South Africa is to most people?

NB: I still don't have a good handle on how alien it is. Johannesburg is weird, because half of it is like Los Angeles. It feels like just wealthy parts of LA. But half of it is severe slummy, something like Rio De Janiero or something. So it's kind of weird, because it's both happening at the same time.

Americans will easily understand the company, the way it's being promoted, and most of the white parts of South African culture. But it's the real bad place, the stricken townships, that I didn't know how they would take. They may take that as being very alien, but in the best-case scenario, they'll be interested to see science fiction occurring in that setting.

Q: How much experience did you have with the townships? Where are you living now?

NB: I left just before I turned 18. I went to Canada in 1987 — Vancouver — so up until I moved at the end of grade 12, I had exposure to the townships but it was limited. Maybe once every six months to a year, I would be there for some reason. Then when I went to Canada, I started going back to Johannesburg every year. That's when I got seriously interested in it, and it was a very different type of thing.

I lived there when I was younger, and it was under apartheid; when I was coming back from Canada it wasn't. It was more the stuff you'd see on television, the way blacks were segregated, and you'd see the armored vehicles going in — this oppressive thing that's happening next door to me. It was almost society from a white kid's point of view when I lived there. From 1997 onwards it was like going in the townships, and then I became more and more interested in it.

I never viewed that interest as connected to science fiction. That was just one part of my mind that was interested in this topic, and the world of films was in another pocket of my mind and very separate.

Q: I see how alien your experiences are from even South Africa so I thought the Nigerians added resonance. And it seems you wanted to give a deeper mythology to all three cultures: the South African, the Alien, and then adding the Nigerian to bring in a sort of African point of view.

[continued, next page]

NB: The Nigerian thing is there because I wanted to take as many cues from South Africa as I could. I wanted South Africa to be the inspiration. If I try to keep South Africa as true to South Africa as I could, then, unfortunately, a massive part of the crime that happens in Johannesburg is by the Nigerians there. It's just the way it is. I wanted to have a crime group, and thought the most honest refraction of a crime group would be Nigerians, for one.

And then secondly, the Muti, the African witch doctor, is also a huge part of Africa and many African countries. So I wanted to incorporate that as well. At the time I was writing the movie, there was all these tribal witch doctor attacks on albinos, because Albino flesh were worth more than normal humans. That was the analogy to a different group or a different race, [with their] traditional medicine, or traditional Muti — even cannibalism, in some instances. I incorporated aliens into that.

Q: In a lot of literary science fiction, it doesn't operate according to obvious, clichéd premises about first contact. By sheer serendipity, a spaceship was damaged and ended up on Earth. I liked that about your premise.You made it feel realistic because you wanted us to accept the realness of it. It doesn't have to be a fantasy.

NB: I wanted to make the most real feeling portrayal of impossible elements that I could make. But it's still different from my actual belief as to how first contact with aliens would go down, because I wanted to make a movie, not a documentary.

Q: Why does first contact have to be in New York or Washington, especially given the circumstances of your film? It doesn't have to occur in obvious places such as Paris, or D.C. Why not come to Johannesburg? Why not stop there by accident? This was more realistic than what we intellectually envision in our head.

NB: Maybe it is more realistic then what we're used to in Hollywood. But still, in my opinion, it's opposed to reality. If some species were able to make some kind of serious interstellar travel like that, or intergalactic travel, they would be at a technological level where there'll be a merging between [them] and [their] technology. It's a lot like what humans will go through as well, provided we don't wipe ourselves out.

Whatever this race is, it would merge with their technology at some point on their planet, and it would be a biological, mechanical crossover, as scientist/writer Ray Kurzweil puts it in The Singularity Is Near — and their society would be altered after that point. There would be a new type of life.

Because they can exist in binary code, as an algorithm, or can download themselves into whatever physical presence they want or exist on computers, they can then determine how they want to travel through space. They could occupy micro-starships and travel just under the speed of light. They may have figured out beyond-speed-of-light travel and gotten around theory of relativity.

And they would come to our planet, for whatever reason, because they chose to come here. There's no way that they would be a destitute refugee group.

The concept of xenophobia and us not being able to accept them is also highly unrealistic, because we can only do that with something that mimics the human form at a similar intelligence level to us. It's difficult to apply racism and xenophobia to a supercomputer. So I think it would be a completely different thing.

Q: What were the greatest challenges you faced in making this film? Obviously the special effects resonates; that's got to be CGI. Was there any time you put people in outfits?

NB: No. It was always digital.

Q: With Peter Jackson on hand were you able to get the special effects more smoothly done?

NB: First of all, visual effects were done in Vancouver, Canada. WETA [Jackson's effects company] did the spaceships. But the aliens were all Canadian.

Q: You must have had fun sketching out what you wanted to the aliens to look like.

NB: It actually wasn't that fun. It was kind of grueling. I had a different design for about six months, and it was the one design that I just didn't feel 100%. Then one day I realized that the ride in reflected this insect hive, and we were really dealing with lots of the drone workers in the hive. So when I figured out that they should reflect this insect biology in a way that they're illustrated, then we went down the road of making them more insect-like.

Q: You got the texture right. That must have made you nervous. Did you test it, or when did you know it worked?

NB: There's two parts to how you pull that stuff off. One part of it is the way that it looks on a frame-by-frame basis, where, hopefully, the goal is that it looks like a photograph and the way it's going to tell what's real and what isn't. That's one part of it. 

The second part is, how does that creature interact with the humans? And how do the humans interact with it? That will be the thing that either will make it work or not. So I used an actor who played Christopher to play off Sharlto, and that meant I was filming those scenes a little different to how you film two normal actors. The process was that we would remove Jason Cope and replace him with Christopher, and his performance would be crossed over to the digital aliens, so both performance were organic and real.

Once I figured that process out, and we had this process where we would remove Jason but capture the essence of his performance, I then thought, "Okay, we're in a good place in terms of how these two people are going to interact with one another," and that felt good.

Then, once you go into postproduction, you work with the effects guys to get the most realistic results. I tried to set that up beforehand — like I tried to make sure that the way I photographed them a lot of the time would be in really harsh African sunlight. That would make them feel more real. Then we had the insect-like, hard-shell surfacing which would make it feel real as well.

Q: In writing the story, did you have some science fiction books or films as a reference?

All of the science fiction in the film, the fantasy part of the movie, is a distilled-down, melting pot of all the stuff that I like in these genre movies [we all know]. But [for] the story itself and the arc of Wikus' character and everything, I tried to use some of Africa and Johannesburg for inspiration for a lot of that. It's almost like reality provides the inspiration, so the science fiction, is, in a way, was almost meant to be familiar. [It's] the African setting that's unfamiliar.

Q: Hopefully, when a writer or producer makes a science fiction movie, they map out its internal logic so that things don't appear inconsistent with the storyline.

NB: I figured out their back-story and their way to the world: once they've arrived here, like 28 years later, how that would work, multi-national corporations getting involved, where they're getting segregated off to. How the humans see them, how they see the humans. That's all part of the set in the world, though, before you start writing the story itself.

Q: By locating the moment of first contact in a very specific place it makes the story more resonant. Will audiences grasp the alien-ness of the story and how the alien-ness of its location enhances it?

NB: That was the goal. Set it in an unusual place, and therefore make it feel more real. So time will tell.

For more by Brad Balfour:

Stargate Set Visit: Canines Reduce Stress

If you’re an actor or crew person and have a pooch for a pet, there’s no better place to work and relax with your four-legged friend than at Bridge Studios in Vancouver, Canada. That's where the hit SyFy series Stargate: Universe is filmed; also produced there are the best-selling Stargate and Stargate Atlantis direct to DVD movies, based on those successful series in the Stargate franchise.

The set “went to the dogs” 11 years ago when the first Stargate series began and continues to be the most dog friendly TV and movie set in the entire world, as actor Robert Picardo (of Star Trek: Voyager fame) found out when he joined Stargate: Atlantis for its fifth and final season as Atlantis’ new mission commander, Richard Woolsey.

“There are dogs everywhere at Vancouver’s Bridge Studios, where we shoot at,” marvels Picardo. “There are dogs up in the production office, in the production meetings, and in many of the actor’s trailers on different days.”

Both Picardo and his wife Linda were just thrilled to know that their Chihuahua “Buddy” and Chihuahua mix “Lola” would be welcomed on the Stargate lot at all times. Buddy and Lola’s introduction to the pooches of the Pegasus Galaxy (the universe in which Stargate: Atlantis is set), however, was quite the doggie drama.

“We went to the makeup trailer,” recalls Picardo, “and there’s Lucy, a squat mini pincher owned by Leah, the head of the makeup department. Lucy kind of holds sway over the makeup trailer. It’s her turf so she barked a blue streak until we took her outside to meet “Buddy” and “Lola” on neutral territory.” Then she was absolutely delightful.”

In fact, Lucy was a little too “delightful” with Buddy for Lola’s taste. “Lola, who considers herself “Buddy’s” mate if you will, was quite jealous. Whenever another female comes in to challenge her relationship with her live-in male, she does bark quite a bit. But I understand that’s common among many females. She was just protecting her man.”

Picardo really knew he was on the most dog friendly lot in the world when he saw “the pooch scoop stations,” located conveniently around the studios, in which the cast and crew deposit their dog’s doings.

“It’s basically a trash can with bags attached, but it says ‘Pooch Scoop Station.’ I have never seen one at another studio and that says to me that not only are dogs tolerated – they are more than welcome and there are enough of them to warrant their own special places.”

“Enough” is putting it mildly. Stargate: Atlantis Executive Producer John Smith says there can be as many as 20 dogs or more on the lot on any given day. Smith is the man responsible for Stargate going to the dogs: “The whole dog thing started out since I’ve been here—since the beginning of Stargate 13 years ago.” In fact Smith always has his permission to take his dogs to work written into his contracts.

“I’ve had probably eight black Labradors in my career that have come into work with me every day,” says Smith, whose luscious black Lab, Haida, has the run of the lot and even her own chair in the boardroom where she attends production meetings daily.

“Haida comes into the office and sits right up at the boardroom table,” says Smith. “She’s always done it since she was a puppy. She’s been coming into the office since she was six weeks old.” That gives Haida seniority at Bridge Studios. “She’s been here a lot longer than a lot of the people on the show,” agrees Smith.

Having Haida and the other dogs around “makes for a relaxing atmosphere in the office,” says Smith. And that canine induced calmness translates into everyone’s performance on the lot from the office workers to the actors.

“100%,” agrees Smith.  “I would absolutely say that.” “David Hewlett (who plays Dr. Rodney McKay on Stargate: Atlantis) brings his dog in everyday. If an actor has his dog in his trailer, he goes back and sits there learning his lines while scratching the dog’s ear. It does bring calmness to you. In this particular line of work, you’re away from home at least 12 or 13 hours a day sometimes, maybe more. This is a way to bring part of your life with you and takes the stress off of being away from all the other things you love at home.”

Picardo immediately noticed the difference in stress levels between the Voyager and Stargate sets: “Certainly some of the requirements that were much more strictly enforced on Voyager are a little looser here. I like the fact that in the Pegasus Galaxy you can in fact, eat on the sets.”

To be fair, the bridge of the starship Voyager was an immaculate carpeted set compared to the more resilient sets of Stargate: Atlantis. “If you’re going to have an actor drop half a tuna melt or a dog pee on the floor,” points out Picardo, “it might as well be on hard wood or concrete rather than carpet.”

Which brings up the question Stargate fans are surely dying to know the answer to by now: In all this time, has a dog ever gone wee-wee or worse on the Stargate — the portal that makes intergalactic travel possible in the series?

“I have not noticed a dog drop a load on the stage,” Picardo replies, “It may or may not have happened. But I am a newcomer, so I would not be the best one to ask.  But as I said, we have far less carpeting in the Pegasus Galaxy, so it would be far less of a tragedy.”  

Actually, according to Smith, in all the years that characters have traveled to other worlds through the Stargate, it has to this day remained unstained. But should that ever happen, Smith assures fans that the Stargate sets are “very durable.”

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